The absence of James White has left a gaping hole in the offense, and the Patriots might need to go outside the organization to address it.
Passing back blues
For the majority of the Patriots success, the presence of a reliable third-down back has been a staple of the offense. From Kevin Faulk to Danny Woodhead to Shane Vereen and most recently James White, New England has been able to utilize smart, dependable backs in the passing game to help keep the ball moving.
Faulk was instrumental in Tom Brady's early developmental years, coming up with timely plays on a weekly basis. He was equally adept at picking up the tough yards on the ground and through the air, while also providing a layer of security as an effective blocker in blitz pickup situations.
Through the first couple of weeks of the 2021 season, it appeared as if White would continue to fill that role effectively for rookie Mac Jones. Through the first two-plus weeks of the season, White racked up 12 receptions for 94 yards while also chipping in a rushing touchdown among his 10 carries. Of those 12 catches, seven of them resulted in first downs.
The final one came in Week 3 against New Orleans, only when White went down along the sideline in front of the Saints bench, he didn't get up. After picking up the first down the veteran suffered a significant hip injury and was placed on injured reserve, leaving a gaping hole in the offense.
Since White went down the Patriots have converted just 17 of 44 third downs (39 percent). Take away a solid 6 of 11 effort against 1-5 Houston and the number drops to 11 of 33 for 33 percent. Jones clearly misses White's presence and the Patriots haven't been able to fill the void.
Bill Belichick has gone to veteran special teams stalwart Brandon Bolden as his first option, and while Bolden has managed to contribute occasionally, he lacks White's penchant for making defenders miss and converting third downs. On Sunday against Dallas he was dropped in the backfield on third-and-1 in the third quarter, leading to a Patriots punt. He also managed to make a tough catch on a low pass thrown behind him to convert a third down later in the game, so it hasn't all been bad.
With rookie Rhamondre Stevenson struggling to forge his way back into the mix, and J.J. Taylor watching the last two games after a big fumble against Tampa Bay, the Patriots seem to have settled on Bolden in the role. It may be time to look elsewhere for a solution.
The trade deadline is approaching on November 2, and Belichick has traditionally been active during this time of year. There are a couple of options that may be available if the Patriots are interested as Marlon Mack has been used sparingly in Indy and wouldn't cost more than a late-round pick. Duke Johnson also has that skill set and is currently a free agent.
Mack would be the pick of the two, although he has seen a recent rise in usage over the last couple of games. He expressed some discontent with his situation earlier in the season, so it's possible the Patriots could pry him loose without surrendering much in the way of resources.
Either way Jones needs some more help, particularly on those third-down plays that White thrived in, and it might be worth the time and effort to find it at the deadline.
Live by the fourth, die by the fourth
Last week we highlighted the aggressive nature of Chargers coach Brandon Staley while pointing out that Los Angeles won its first four out of five games while going 7-for-8 on fourth downs with many of those conversions coming deep in their own territory.
Sunday in Baltimore was a much different story. Staley remained aggressive against the 4-1 Ravens, but this time his star quarterback Justin Herbert was unable to deliver. The Chargers picked up just one of four fourth-down attempts, failing to convert a fourth-and-3 from their own 39 and later on fourth-and-1 from their 19. The failures allowed Baltimore to put the game away, turning a 17-6 lead into a 27-6 blowout.
It's unlikely that Staley will venture away from his mindset, but it's an example of the other side of the analytics game.
Speaking of fourth down …
It might be time for Belichick to get more aggressive in those situations, particularly in light of the inconsistent nature of the defense. Against Dallas on Sunday the Patriots punted on five straight possessions and four came when needing 1, 2, 4 and 3 yards. The fourth-and-2 came from the 50, fourth-and-4 from the Patriots 46 and the fourth-and-3 was in overtime, again at the Patriots 46.
Given the struggles on defense, the final one seemed like a risk worth taking. Dallas had moved the ball at will for four full quarters, racking up 487 yards of offense and was in position to score on all but two of its 11 possessions. Rolling the dice near midfield would have opened the possibility of a short Cowboys drive to a field goal, but given the state of the defense (they were on the field for 89 plays and almost 40 minutes) a stop seemed unlikely either way.
Belichick has also been less than aggressive in late-half situations, particularly on Sunday when he had Damien Harris plow into the middle on the first play after taking over at the 20 with 1:30 left. The Patriots had just completed a stirring goal line stand, forcing a Dak Prescott fumble into the end zone on fourth down and momentum was all on the Patriots side.
Still, Belichick went conservative and Harris was stuffed for a yard. Jones then kneeled twice and the teams went to their locker rooms. The Patriots narrow margin for error means they need to steal possessions and opportunities to score as often as possible, and the Cowboys turning it over twice in the end zone were perfect examples of such opportunities.
It might be time to see if Jones is capable of handling more in those situations, because relying on the defense and playing tight, low-scoring games hasn't resulted in wins.
Week 6 tidbits
Kudos to the Cardinals for not only going to Cleveland and taking care of business to remain unbeaten but doing so in convincing fashion. And they did it without their coach as Kliff Kingsbury didn't make the trip due to COVID protocols. Yes, Arizona had some help on the injury front with the Browns missing a number of key starters but the game was not particularly competitive from the outset. … The Raiders also posted an impressive win, taking care of the Broncos in Denver, racing out to a 34-10 lead before a couple of late scores by the home team made it look respectable. Reports out of Vegas indicated the Derek Carr was instrumental in getting his team past the devastation of losing head coach Jon Gruden, and the quarterback responded by throwing for 341 yards and a pair of touchdowns. … Another week and three more games ending in overtime, making at least one in each of the first six weeks of the season. In all 11 games have needed extra time thus far, the second-most ever through six weeks, trailing 1995 (12) .
It's time to recognize the lone unbeaten team in football after the Cardinals impressive stomping of the Browns in Cleveland.
- Arizona (6-0) – No coach, no problem. Kyler Murray appears to be making the next step and is playing at an MVP level.
- Baltimore (5-1) – I've been slow to embrace the Ravens due to the unlikely nature of their wins but they made a statement Sunday against the Chargers.
- Green Bay (5-1) – Aaron Rodgers and the Pack continue to run roughshod over the NFC North.
- Tampa Bay (5-1) – The Bucs aren't perfect but the quarterback is pretty close.
- Buffalo (4-2) – Slipping on a fourth-down QB sneak doesn't mean Josh Allen and the Bills aren't still among the game's elite.